Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law

I was flipping through the pages of Call and Response the other day when I came across the lyrics to a song called “Black and Blue.” I am familiar with this song and I thought it was by Louis Armstrong. When I saw the names Andy Razaf and Fats Waller written next to the lyrics I was confused. I looked it up and it turns out that Fats Waller is given ownership since he composed the music. Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks wrote the lyrics. I think it is interesting that the editors of Call and Response left out Harry Brooks but included Fats Waller, and even more so that I assumed Louis Armstrong owned this piece. This reminded me of one of my prior posts, in which I wondered how many times someone has to undergo repetition with a difference to possess something.

“Black and Blue” was originally performed in a musical (Hot Chocolates by Edith Wilson) and many artists have put out renditions of this song since then. Louis Armstrong’s version is different from the others in that he cuts out a lot of the context, instead including a longer instrumental introduction and an interlude. Rep&Rev (as Suzan-Lori Parks calls it) is a very important part of jazz music (and African culture more broadly). An essential aspect of jazz music is improvisation which is done through taking the basic shape of the song and putting your own individual twist on it. Call and Response mentions the importance of this process in the popularization of “Black and Blue” when Armstrong, “with his own ingenious improvisational elaborations… made the song and its hard-hitting message of the devastating effects of racism come alive.”

In “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” Bernice Johnson Reagon compares Western and African culture. While Western culture emphasizes giving credit to others for their ideas and being original (private property ethos), African culture acknowledges the repetition that is inherent in it and uses “original sound as signature.” In other words, she says that it is expected that you copy and imitate others until you find your own voice. Western culture ignores sound, style, and rhythm, instead focusing on data and text. In the case of “Black and Blue,” the text remains the same when Armstrong sings it, therefore Western culture would claim his version of the song is unoriginal and yet, it was not popularized until he sang it with his voice and style.

According to the law of adverse possession, you own something through continuous possession of it without the permission of the legal owner. You must be in possession of it, act as though you were the legal owner, and maintain/improve it (rep&rev). This law is usually applied to property but can be applied to art and literature, as well. I feel as though this can be applied to Armstrong’s possession of “Black and Blue.” Even though Fats is the legal owner who gets the royalty payment, Armstrong has repeated the song many times, he sang it as if he owned it, and he maintained/improved it by applying his own style. Even disregarding the legal ownership of something, the expression “possession is nine-tenths of the law” reflects how just appearing to own something is enough in the eyes of the viewers. In other words, people will assume that the clothes you are wearing belong to you simply on the basis that you are currently in possession of them and using them like they are yours. In the same way, I thought that “Black and Blue” was Armstrong’s song until I looked it up. To many, it still belongs to him. I guess my question now is: does it even matter who owns something? And if it does, then who owns “Black and Blue”?

 

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